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By Neal Rogers
On the eve of his fourth Tour de France, Silence-Lotto’s Cadel Evans told a crowded hotel lobby that though he might be the pre-race favorite heading into the race, due to his second-place finish last year, given this year’s list of contenders, actually winning the race is something else entirely.
Flanked by team manager Marc Sergeant and compatriot Robbie McEwen, Evans acknowledged that the 2008 Tour represents a unique opportunity to capitalize on the absence of Astana’s 2007 champion Alberto Contador. He added, however, that to take the yellow jersey he will first have to work through rivals such as Carlos Sastre (CSC-Saxo Bank), Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) and Rabobank’s Denis Menchov, who he named as his primary concern.
“Menchov has been quietly bubbling way, I think,” Evans said. “He looked good in the Giro d’Italia, although he was not often put on his limits. And Rabobank showed last year that they could ride for yellow. Then there’s strength in numbers at CSC with Sastre and Frank and Andy Schleck. I’ll be watching Cunego, and of course Valverde has come to another level as stage race rider. I may be the biggest favorite, but it’s not going to be easy.”
Evans, who is known to be intolerant of the media and is using the services of a bodyguard at the Tour for the first time, set the tone early during the press conference when asked how he was feeling heading into Saturday’s opening stage.
“Until you all came [to the team hotel] I was calm and relaxed,” he said, perhaps only half jokingly. “[Saturday] will be different, I’m sure.”
Sergeant began by the press conference by stating that while Silence-Lotto hopes to take stage wins with McEwen, and possibly Evans, the team’s primary goal is yellow in Paris. Evans, who has raced all three of his Tours under Sergeant, finished eighth overall in his first Tour in 2005, fourth in his second Tour in 2006, and second last year.
“Every year his result has been divided in two,” Sergeant said. “This year the mathematics are right for a victory. Many of the competitors from several teams understand this year is a golden opportunity to win the Tour because Astana is not here. We have selected, from our point of view, the best team for Cadel. Several weeks before the Tour these riders were given the certainty to be selected so they could properly prepare. On the whole it’s a well-balanced team.”
Though they both hail from Australia, McEwen and Evans couldn’t have more different personalities. Cocky and outspoken, McEwen rarely shies away from the spotlight and enters a room with a swagger. Evans, however, is soft spoken and reclusive, and tends to avoid the limelight whenever possible, exiting press situations swiftly. Yet now that Sergeant has faith in Evans as a legitimate GC contender, McEwen, a three-time green jersey winner, finds himself in the unusual position of being left to fend for himself in the mass sprints.
“It’s hard to win the green jersey with a team riding for you, and even harder without, so no, taking green is not priority,” McEwen said. “I want to win a stage, and take it from there. I realize and understand that this team is built around Cadel. I hope to do my thing, win stages in the sprints, and if I happen to get the green jersey for performing well in stage finishes I’ll try to hold it. It’s not a priority for team, and it’s not a goal for myself either.”
The last team to take both the green and yellow jerseys at the same Tour was the 1997 Telekom team of Jan Ullrich and Erik Zabel. As Ullrich struggled to topple Lance Armstrong from 2000 through 2005, Zabel found himself in a similar situation on Telekom.
McEwen stated point blank Friday that his own position on Silence-Lotto Tour team was never in question. However rumors have been rampant that the Aussie star is entertaining offers from several teams for the 2009 season.
Sergeant made a point early on that no one on the Silence-Lotto team would speak of 2009 transfers during the Tour, giving added credence to the McEwen rumors.
“We won’t discuss who is coming or going to the team,” Sergeant said. “We are going to focus on the Tour, and we ask that you please respect that.”
For his part McEwen said the switch in team priority from the points jersey to yellow wasn’t upsetting because it has been a “gradual shift over three years.”
“Before Cadel first came on, I spoke with Marc about Cadel, about his qualities and what he was capable of doing. I recommended Cadel, even though I knew that in that in long term it could work against me. It was something I was prepared to go through. That said, it would be great to be part of a Tour de France-winning team.”
When asked if the team was strong enough to protect the maillot jaune, Sergeant snapped back that defending the jersey was not the team’s goal.
“The objective is to have yellow in Paris,” he said. “There are many ways to do this. I don’t think we are going to protect the jersey for three weeks. If he takes the yellow jersey early, then we may have the opportunity to do something else. I don’t think we have a team to control the race.”
Though appearing more relaxed than he has at past Tour press conferences, Evans occasionally allowed his less-agreeable side to show, particularly when asked perhaps his least favorite question — if he would break from his conservative racing style and animate the race by attacking.
“Let’s see what happens and how my legs are,” Evans said, quickly moving on to the next question.
If criticism of his racing style is Evans’ least-favorite topic, his runner-up might be as to whether or not a win at this year’s Tour would be devalued due to Astana’s absence.
“No,” Evans answered. “The Tour is the Tour.”
Evans’ standoffish relationship with the press prompted one reporter to ask McEwen what the biggest public misconception about Evans might be. McEwen answered that privately Evans isn’t as closed off as he appears in the public eye.
“I think the press want to know everything, and know it immediately,” McEwen said. “There is a misconception that Cadel doesn’t like to talk too much or show how he feels. That’s not true, he just doesn’t like to do that to everyone in the world. He’s not as closed book as you might think, it’s just that the cameras tend to put him off.”
“It’s all about personal space,” Evans added, “and the invasion of it.”
However, if Evans takes yellow, he can expect to have his personal space invaded, bodyguard and all.